A man in glasses and a tie with his arms crossed.

I Came as a Shadow (Book Review)

John Thompson came as a shadow. He arrived quietly on the scene and gradually became visible to all in college sports. In his memoir, Thompson talks about more than basketball but about life itself. He is transparent about his personal feelings, decision-making, politics, racism, poverty, and economics. Yet, Thompson teaches us how we can beat the odds when all of those things are stacked against us. You have to be courageous even when the world may think you have a chip on your shoulders when you only want what’s fair not favor. 

Thompson makes no apologies in this memoir. He owns his mistakes. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He tells it like it is whether you believe him, whether you like what he has to say or whether you accept what he has to say or not. A lot of what we thought we knew about Thompson was what the media told us. It was refreshing to read what actually happened and what Thompson’s thought process was with each situation, especially since Thompson had always been a private man even until his demise. To know his business, he would have to invite you there and once he did, you had better keep quiet about it. For instance, when Thompson met with notorious drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond, he did not threaten him the way the media led people to believe. Also, when Thompson met with Nike owner, Phil Knight, he didn’t blow him off and think he was crazy like some other college coaches did. He actually helped Knight before Air Jordan elevated the Nike corporation. The two mavericks would become lifelong friends. Also, Thompson’s meeting with Ann Iverson, mother to Basketball Hall of Famer, Allen Iverson was not as pleasant of a meeting starting off, but it did end well and thankfully so or else we wouldn’t have heard of Allen “A.I.” “The Answer” Iverson.

I appreciated the backstories of Patrick Ewing and how he dealt with racism at many different Ivy League colleges that happened to be Catholic univerisities.

None of the schools are mentioned by name, but for Thompson it didn’t discourage his faith in Catholicism. In fact, he’d insisted a statue of Mother Theresa be placed in one of Georgetown’s corridors. 

The backstories about local DC basketball legends are mentioned in Thompson’s memoir as well. For me, being a kid who grew up in the 80s, I found the information to be a good lesson in our DC sports history. Although many didn’t make it to the NBA, some did, even if their careers were short-lived. I found myself rooting for the guys who came from poorer neighborhoods, like Michael Graham, who could’ve been a great NBA player, but he missed several opportunities to prove himself in basketball. Later in life, Graham would find better fortune even though he’d lost it earlier on.

Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Mutumbo, and Allen Iverson would all have great successful careers in the NBA and become HOFers thanks to Thompson’s tutlege and coaching. A few other Georgetown legends like Michael Jackson (not the singer), did other things in sports. Jackson would end up being responsible for NBA TV analysts Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith gracing the same platform on TNT’s network. Jackson is still working behind the scenes today. 

Thompson was a stoic and confident man. At times, he admits that he was controlling and domineering, and that not every player succeeded under him nor did they always like him personally nor his style of coaching. My understanding of Thompson from reading this memoir is that he was really no different from any other Coach who used to be an athlete. Some coaches do have a bit of an ego and cockiness. It’s the nature of sports to a certain degree. You need to have some confidence and a little bit of intimidation about yourself for opponents, even as a Coach. Thompson, in the beginning was strategic in that way when it came to his competitivenesss. On and off the basketball court, he was smart, brilliant, and practical. He understood that coaching was a juggling act. He still needed to be able to reach the heart of his players. Although his stature could be intimidating, his heart was as tender as the towel he carried across his shoulder during games. It was a towel that represented his beloved mother and her hard work to get him to be the man he would eventually become.

It is true that Thompson wanted to “win ball games and not save every black kid out there,” he states. Often times, the responsibility of mentoring young black men fell into his lap whether he wanted it to or not. Many players, years later, thanked him for helping them become better men. 

Although Thompson lost more big games than he’d ever won, he learned many lessons along the way. He learned to play the game of politics in an ever-changing sport. He learned when to be quiet and when to speak up for the rights of players and coaches. Thompson proved to be one of the biggest champions in college sports because he changed many young lives for the better. He helped build brands and peoples’ characters. Thompson made many sacrifices, made many mistakes, and he had many victories as well. He may have come to us as a shadow, but he left his mark in the history of Washington, DC forever! 

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